Just imagine this: you have everything you could want. A fine house, more than enough money, holidays whenever you want to take them, good health, etc. But you don’t have anybody to share these with. Can you still be happy? Not according to the American social psychologist Roy Baumeister. His research leads him to conclude that contact with other people forms an essential part of our existence. Put even more strongly, we have the primal need to belong, and to establish long-term relations with people we can trust and with whom we can have fun. It is one of our most powerful motivational instincts. Baumeister showed, amongst other things, that our fear of being rejected socially, and of being left alone, is more acute than our fear of dying. To the extent that we think about it several times a day.

This fear can be explained if we consider the evolutionary process. Because in the past we had a greater chance of survival if we belonged to a group. Aside from this ‘practical’ aspect, friendships also have positive effects. For example, Australian researchers have shown that having good friends contributes to a healthier and longer life. The same applies to having good family relations. However, the link between good health and friendships is much stronger. Another study shows that not having friends is just as bad for your health as smoking and being overweight. In other words: as well as being a primal need, friendships are also a matter of life and death!

But there are some disadvantages too. For example, researchers at the University of Missouri showed that when girlfriends talk to each other, their stress levels increase. It was proven that the level of the stress hormone cortisol rises when you talk about personal problems and when you spend an extended period reflecting on negative feelings. Listening with compassion, asking questions, agreeing with each other and worrying together (which, in principle, has a positive function) therefore has a darker side. It would prove beneficial if you established your personal boundaries in good time, didn’t go along with the idea that the situation is indeed terrible, confronted the other person with the consequences of their actions, if necessary changed the subject of the conversation, put things into perspective, or used humour so that you could laugh at the problem together.

Men, by contrast, talk less frequently among themselves about personal problems. And if they actually talk about them, they look each other in the eyes less often, talk more in terms of solutions (rather than getting things off their chest), release their feelings of annoyance, drink another beer and carry on with a joke and a laugh. Men typically also have fewer friendships than women and they find it easier to put an end to these friendships.

And terminating relationships is an art on its own. Where you might think nothing of driving 100 kilometres to see a ‘real’ friend, a telephone conversation with a ‘less’ good friend could easily be regarded as annoying. It’s only when you put the phone down that you realise you have less energy than when you started the conversation. And the next time the telephone rings, you won’t pick up the receiver because you’re ‘not at home’. Or you say that ‘we’ll have to meet up soon’, but you end up putting off that ‘soon’ for quite some time. An alternative might be to send them the ‘break-up song’.

Do you bring things out into the open if you notice that a friendship has lost its intensity? Of course, you don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. On the other hand, it does drain your energy. And we mustn’t forget that friendships coming to an end is a fairly normal phenomenon. Practical causes of terminating friendships might be a move to another city, or entering a new social environment as a result of a change in work or family situation. A more fundamental reason could be the violation of one or both person’s trust, or if the other person does something which goes against your faith or values. But the question remains whether you dare to speak your mind. Or would you rather break the relationship abruptly, or simply let it slowly bleed to death? In which case you will not be doing justice to your friendship or yourself. On top of that, there’s a chance you’ll hurt somebody’s feelings. Is it all worth it?

Finally, your challenge for the coming period. What is the state of your friendships? How open and honest are you within those relationships? Initiate a discussion on this subject with a few friends. Send them this newsletter beforehand, and ask them why they are your friends. What is it about you that attracts them, why do they spend time and energy in their relationship with you? And it goes without saying that you should ask yourself the same question. I’m really curious to hear about the new insights you acquire.

Enjoy your friendships!

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